In 1922, Francis Picabia wrote, “If you want to have clean ideas, change them like shirts.”1 Throughout his audacious and inventive career, which spanned almost 50 years and encompassed painting, performance, poetry, publishing, and film, Picabia lived out that prescription. Although he remains best known as a Dadaist, his work ranged from Impressionist painting to radical abstraction, from iconoclastic provocation to pseudo-classicism, and from photo-based painting to Art Informel. He relished courting controversy, making regular engagements with the press a part of the construction of his artistic persona.
Born in Paris in 1879, Picabia first made his name as a late-coming Impressionist painter in 1905. In the fall of 1912, he exhibited a group of large-scale abstractions, including The Spring and Dances at the Spring [II]. Along with František Kupka’s Amorpha, fugue in two colors and Fernand Léger’s Woman in Blue, Picabia’s canvases marked the arrival of non-objective painting in Paris. This stylistic change was the first of many abrupt reversals that would characterize his career. It also delivered his first major succès de scandale, as critics condemned the new work as “ugly” and “incomprehensible.”
While World War I raged in Europe, Picabia sought exile abroad in New York, Barcelona, and Switzerland. During this time, his activities as a publisher of the journal 391 coincided with the appearance of the machine in his visual work. As in "M’Amenez-y", hard-edged, frontal objects, often copied from scientific magazines and precisely rendered in industrial paints, took center stage. He also began to pepper his compositions with words and phrases. After the war, Picabia returned to Paris, and the Dada movement, led by Tristan Tzara, landed there soon after, inaugurating months of performances, parties, and battles in the press in an all-out assault on the culture of rationality the Dadaists held responsible for the war. Picabia made works like Tableau Rastadada, a mordant self-portrait, finding in Dada a provocative spirit that matched and extended his own.
Picabia continued to cycle through styles and experiment with unorthodox materials. Although he renounced Dada in 1921, certain tenets of that movement persisted in his work, including the appropriation of found imagery: in one of his last stylistic phases, he copied and recombined magazine photographs into new, painted compositions, as in Portrait of a Couple. Throughout, Picabia questioned the meaning and purpose of art even as he practiced it. In 1949, Marcel Duchamp described Picabia’s career as a “kaleidoscopic series of art experiences.”2 Marked by a consistent inconsistency, that career continues to challenge traditional narratives of modernism.
Introduction by Natalie Dupêcher, Museum Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2016
Through Jan 2, 2022
508: According to the Laws of Chance
508: Readymade in Paris and New York
Fall 2019–Fall 2020
Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape
Oct 21, 2019–Oct 4, 2020
Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction
Nov 21, 2016–Mar 19, 2017
- Francis Picabia has online.
If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).
MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research-and-learning/circulating-film.
If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].